The Internet hosts thousands of brain training exercises, games, software, even apps, all designed to prepare your brain to do better on any number of tasks. Lumosity claims such games will improve your overall “brain health,” and suggests the games are like a “workout, but for your brain.”
A new study says they do work, but there’s a catch.
According to new research, the training for a particular task does heighten performance, but that the training doesn’t necessarily carry over to a new challenge.
The brain training provided in the study caused a proactive shift in inhibitory control, said Dr. Elliot T. Berkman, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon.
But it is not clear if the improvement extends to other kinds of executive function, such as working memory, because the research team’s focus was on inhibitory control, Berkman said.
“With training, the brain activity became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed,” he said.
“This result is important because it explains how brain training improves performance on a given task — and also why the performance boost doesn’t generalize beyond that task.”
The scientists recruited 60 people — 27 male and 33 females ranging in age from 18 to 30 years old — for the three-phase study. Changes in their brain activity were monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Half of the subjects were in the experimental group that was trained with a task that models inhibitory control — one kind of self-control — as a race between a “go” process and a “stop” process. A faster stop process indicates more efficient inhibitory control, the researcher explains.
In each of a series of trials, participants were given a “go” signal — an arrow pointing left or right. Subjects pressed a key corresponding to the direction of the arrow as quickly as possible, launching the go process. However, on 25 percent of the trials, a beep sounded after the arrow appeared, signaling participants to withhold their button press, launching the stop process.
Participants practiced either the stop-signal task or a control task that didn’t affect inhibitory control every other day for three weeks. Performance improved more in the training group than in the control group, the researchers discovered.
fMRI captures changes in blood oxygen levels. Activity in the inferior frontal gyrus and anterior cingulate cortex — brain regions that regulate inhibitory control — decreased during inhibitory control, but increased immediately before it in the training group more than in the control group.
The fMRI results identified three regions of the brain of the trained subjects that showed changes during the task, prompting the researchers to theorize that emotional regulation may have been improved by reducing distress and frustration during the trials.
Overall, the size of the training effect is small, the researchers noted. A challenge for future research, they concluded, will be to identify protocols that might generate greater positive and lasting effects.
The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Source: University of Oregon